Fire GM Nelson Rodriguez preaches modesty amid team's positive start

Fire GM Nelson Rodriguez preaches modesty amid team's positive start

It’s amazing the difference a year has made for the Chicago Fire.

At this time last year the Fire were coming off having the worst record in Major League Soccer and looked headed to another year at the bottom. The team’s attack was toothless when David Accam was injured and any early optimism in the first year for general manager Nelson Rodriguez and coach Veljko Paunovic waned.

In the first of three organized meetings with reporters last year, Rodriguez admitted the team’s record wasn’t good enough and preached patience. Things didn’t get much better for the Fire, which finished last for the second year in a row.

This offseason, Rodriguez made a number of big moves and the early returns are positive on most of them. Dax McCarty has vastly improved the team’s midfield and possession play, with goalkeeper Matt Lampson calling him the team’s MVP after practice on Tuesday. Nemanja Nikolic leads the league in goals, something unthinkable in the first half of last year when the Fire struggled to get one or two shots on target, let alone goals, during a match. Bastian Schweinsteiger is the big name player fans have been waiting years for and he has delivered on the $5.4 million price tag.

When Rodriguez fielded questions from reporters for an hour on Tuesday, the Fire had the third most points in Major League Soccer. He could have referenced the patience he called for a year ago and boasted about the vindication. Instead, he said, as coach Veljko Paunovic did in the past week, that the team still hasn’t accomplished anything.

“For sure I sleep a little better,” Rodriguez said. “For sure you can’t wait for the next game even sooner, especially when you’re on a good patch I think. There’s so much ground yet to cover. This is a very difficult league to prognosticate and predict, even from week-to-week.

“I think it’s my job to try to see through the results, again continue to measure our process and how we’re progressing against that process to try to make sure that we don’t have any blind spots to ourselves and what we’re doing and how we’re doing it. To push the group to constantly self-reflect and improve.”

[MORE FIRE: Tough tests in next two months should show a lot about Fire]

Rodriguez also said the Fire’s positive start hasn’t changed his expectations for this season either.

“We have to be a little bit modest, given that we as a club have struggled for so many years,” he said. “The first bar, and it’s a low bar, but it’s the playoffs.

“Our expectations were to make the playoffs. Our expectations were to contend or win the Open Cup championship and those continue to hold.”

He did admit that “skepticism is understandable” from fans who have seen the team struggle for several years. Schweinsteiger’s arrival and the team’s improved record have created what he described as a momentum, and not just on the field.

“There’s certainly a buzz,” Rodriguez said. “There’s also still that small, but loud group of wallowers who are just hoping that the wheels come off or still want different players than the ones we acquired. That will still be there, perhaps until we win a championship. Overall, I think there is an excitement that’s building.”

This is the high point of Rodriguez's still-young tenure with the club. The Fire feature a World Cup winner, have one of the best records in the league and there’s a buzz around the team. What a difference a year makes, indeed.

Dax McCarty named to U.S. national team roster for Gold Cup

Dax McCarty named to U.S. national team roster for Gold Cup

After the Chicago Fire's 4-0 win against Orlando on Saturday, midfielder Dax McCarty said his goodbyes to his teammates and got an extra handshake and a good luck message from coach Veljko Paunovic.

That's because McCarty was preparing to leave the Fire to join the U.S. national team for the upcoming Gold Cup, CONCACAF's regional tournament. McCarty was named to the 23-man roster that will take place in the tournament, which runs from July 7-26.

The U.S. will play against Ghana on July 1 in a tune-up. Fire winger David Accam will be a part of that Ghana team and is also away from the Fire. McCarty and Accam will both miss the U.S. Open Cup game in Cincinnati on Wednesday and the MLS game against Vancouver the same day as that friendly.

MLS is taking a break during Gold Cup group play, but will resume as the knockout round begins. If the U.S. gets to the semifinals, McCarty would miss three MLS games (July 1 vs. Vancouver, July 5 at Portland and July 22 vs. New York City FC). He would also miss a potential Open Cup quarterfinal if the Fire beat FC Cincinnati.

McCarty has been called in regularly under coach Bruce Arena, but has only played in friendlies. With the Gold Cup drawing mostly from MLS players, with European-based players getting a break during the club offseason, McCarty could see more playing time.

Fire right back Matt Polster was also included on the preliminary roster, but was not on the final 23-man roster. Former Fire goalkeeper Sean Johnson was also on the team.

Here is the full roster:

GOALKEEPERS (3): Brad Guzan (Atlanta United FC), Bill Hamid (D.C. United), Sean Johnson (New York City FC)

DEFENDERS (8): Matt Besler (Sporting Kansas City), Omar Gonzalez (Pachuca, Mexico), Matt Hedges (FC Dallas), Eric Lichaj (Nottingham Forest, England), Matt Miazga (Chelsea, England), Justin Morrow (Toronto FC), Jorge Villafaña (Santos Laguna, Mexico), Graham Zusi (Sporting Kansas City)

MIDFIELDERS (9): Kellyn Acosta (FC Dallas), Paul Arriola (Club Tijuana, Mexico), Alejandro Bedoya (Philadelphia Union), Joe Corona (Club Tijuana, Mexico), Dax McCarty (FIRE), Cristian Roldan (Seattle Sounders), Kelyn Rowe (New England Revolution), Kenny Saief (Gent, Belgium), Gyasi Zardes (LA Galaxy)

FORWARDS (3): Juan Agudelo (New England Revolution), Dom Dwyer (Sporting Kansas City), Jordan Morris (Seattle Sounders)

As questions about his future remain, David Accam is in his best run with the Fire

As questions about his future remain, David Accam is in his best run with the Fire

For the past two seasons, David Accam was a bright spot on bad Chicago Fire teams.

This season, with more talent on the roster, Accam has blossomed into one of the most dangerous players in the league.

He had a hat trick and an assist in Saturday’s 4-0 win against Orlando. That gives him 10 goals and six assists on the season. Only two other players in Major League Soccer have 16 combined goals and assists, New York City FC's David Villa and teammate Nemanja Nikolic (the leading goal-scorer in the league).

“I thought I could do anything on the pitch today,” Accam said. “I just wanted to enjoy myself and entertain the fans and also help the team win. That’s what we did today, especially after my first goal. I just thought I could get more goals and also help the team win.”

Accam’s big game comes after he sat out the previous two games, which were both played on turf. He wasn’t listed on the injury report, but coach Veljko Paunovic said, “he didn’t recover from the physical issues that he had in the previous game.”

The rest seemed to do Accam some good, but his success in the game (as well as his recent run of eight goals and four assists in his last eight matches) coincides with questions about his future. He was recently rumored to be the target of a Turkish club.

In the past, Accam has spoken about his ambition to play at the highest levels. Typically, that means Europe. General manager Nelson Rodriguez said last month that he expects offers to come in for the 26-year-old because he is a good player in his prime ages.

So is Accam playing like someone trying to earn a new contract? That could be either impressing potential suitors in Europe or boosting his negotiation position with the Fire. Rodriguez has talked about contract negotiations with Accam before, and said those will not resume again until after the season.

“I wanted to be in a team where I would develop as a person and also win trophies, whether here or somewhere (else) I don’t know,” Accam said. “For me, I’m doing really well here and every year if I keep playing well there will be always interest. I know there is a lot of interest because I’m doing well. For me it’s always extra motivation to keep doing well. You don’t know where I will end up, whether here or somewhere else. I’ll just keep playing.”

Accam’s play earned him another call-up to the Ghanaian national team. He will join the team on Sunday for a pair of friendlies in the U.S. The Black Stars will take on Mexico in Houston on June 28 and the U.S. in East Hartford, Conn., on July 1 as the two North American countries prepare for the Gold Cup.

“That’s where I want to be,” Accam said. “I want to be playing for the national team so it’s extra motivation for me to perform well and also to go to the national team.”

Accam has been one of the most productive players in MLS this year, based on goals and assists, and is young enough to draw the attention of plenty of teams. For now, the Fire have him as a key part of the best season the club has had in years.

“I think that he understands very well how to play with the team that we have now and with the teammates that he is surrounded with,” coach Veljko Paunovic said. “We just have to work to give David opportunities… Then we expect that performances like that will come even more.”